Forest Bathing for Health: How Nature Nurtures Wellbeing

What is forest bathing?
The mental health connection
Physical health benefits
Nature and urban living
The role of ecotherapy
Incorporating forest bathing into daily life
Further reading

Research suggests that spending time in natural settings is beneficial to both mental and physical health. Some findings are based on the active practice of forest bathing, while others relate to non-deliberate time spent in nature.

Image Credit: U. J. Alexander/

Image Credit: U. J. Alexander/

The connection between nature and health is not a simple one. Engaging with the natural world is a multisensory, multivariate experience. For that reason, it can be difficult to narrow down which exact components of forest bathing support well-being.

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku (森林浴), is a meditative practice in woodland settings. It was developed in Japan in the 1980s to protect the body against stress, and it can be prescribed for anxiety and depression.

Akasawa Shizen Kyuyourin is a national park in Nagano where forest bathing reportedly began. Specialist groups and medical professionals have conducted further research, and similar findings were replicated in other natural settings.

In 2007, Dr. Qing Li founded the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine (JSFM). The JSFM is an institute that supports researchers in investigating the effects of forest bathing using empirical, scientific methodologies.

The mental health connection

Increased levels of neurochemicals that are fundamental to mental well-being have been found in forest bathers. A study found that participants who forest bathed had higher levels of serotonin in serum samples taken after the exercise compared to samples taken beforehand.

Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, cardiovascular function, and certain clinical disorders. Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and Generalised Anxiety Disorder are all associated with lower or fluctuating serotonin levels.

Psychological restoration can also be encouraged through time spent in nature. Auditory stimulation is thought to play a part in this, with natural sounds positively impacting participants' subjective experiences of focus and happiness.

Birdsong heard in greenspaces seems to increase both perceived and actual levels of mental restoration. These findings were replicated across a number of different studies; some conducted using the Perceived Restorativeness Scale, and others using alpha and beta electroencephalogram imaging.

Physical health benefits

Forest bathing can have an excitatory effect on activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, as forest bathers were found to have lower blood pressure and slower heart rates. For that reason, forest bathing may be positively correlated with neurocardiovascular health.

Forest-based exercise can also have anti-inflammatory effects. Gentle exercise alone can trigger the release of myokines in the musculoskeletal system, which may have direct and indirect anti-inflammatory properties. The flora found in the area could also have compounding effects.

Alpha-pinene and beta-pinene are released into the atmosphere by foliage like conifers. Research found pinenes suppress the body's production of interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) when applied topically in an ethanol solution. However, it is not clear if the same findings can be replicated in humans through airborne means.

The production of cytokines causes inflammation in the joints: a sequence of bonded amino acids produced by immune cells. IL-6 and TNF-a are both instrumental in triggering joint stiffness, so reducing their production might have anti-inflammatory potential.

Spending time in nature can also offer other immune benefits. Research was conducted into the immunological potential of forest bathing in the Mecsek mountains in both January and May. In both designs of the study, participants had elevated levels of natural killer T-cells (NKT) in their blood serum after forest bathing.

The exact effect forest bathing had on NKT cells varied depending on two factors: firstly, the type and presentation of the NKT cell, and secondly, the month the study took place. Both months had a statistically significant difference when compared to the pretest regarding TIM-3 expressions on all NKT and NKTdim cells. However, the effect in January was substantially less than the effect in May.

Nature and urban living

Accessing green spaces in urban settings can be difficult, blocking a large part of the population from accessing nature's benefits. Psychologists, medical doctors, architects, and more are undertaking cross-disciplinary research to combat this access gap.

Urban greenspaces are a vital tool for tackling this issue. Some city-based greenspaces are designed in a way informed by this research. These spaces optimize the comparatively small spaces for maximum restorative potential.

Virtual or synthetic environments may offer alternative forest bathing opportunities to those who cannot access local greenspaces. For example, auditory aspects of forest bathing could be listened to as a soundscape with similar benefits to experiencing it in vivo.

The Art and Science of Forest Bathing with Dr Qing Li

A study published by The Royal Society explored the effect of pre-recorded 'phantom birdsong' on perceived mental restoration. Varying levels of biodiversity were included in each soundscape. The soundscapes appeared to have as much of an effect as 'live' birdsong on mental restoration. Furthermore, the higher the biodiversity, the greater the recordings' effects.

Participants experienced greater benefits from a simulated forest bathing experience when they could connect stimuli with personal experience. This means that virtual forest bathing may be more effective for those who have directly experienced nature, so it may not be a viable treatment for those with little experience.

The role of ecotherapy

Forest bathing's effectiveness, along with other findings regarding human-nature interaction, has informed the basis of a number of other similar therapeutic practices. These practices fall under the umbrella of ecotherapy.

Nature is a core part of ecotherapy, with the view that ecosystems offer well-being support to humans. Some eco-therapeutic practices are undertaken consciously and with intent, such as Kneipp therapy, which is based on cold-water exposure. Other perspectives within the field instead utilize the therapeutic potential of incidental interactions with nature.

Studies into the effectiveness of ecotherapy practices tend to demonstrate overall support for the role of nature in well-being. However, they do not tend to offer a direct causal relationship between any specific aspect of nature and health due to the inherently multifaceted experience being in nature offers. For that reason, the research typically has a holistic approach.

Incorporating forest bathing into daily life

Spending time in nature can be incorporated into a weekly or monthly schedule to help nurture well-being. Although much research is based on long, frequent hikes through national parks, there are other ways of benefiting from the field's findings without becoming immersed in the practice.

Some benefits of forest bathing can be found in spending as little as 15 minutes to two hours in nature. Even small or infrequent amounts of time spent exercising in nature should lead to health benefits, making integrating the practice into daily life easier.

Based on published research, virtual forest bathing may also be a viable option for those unable to access physical greenspaces. There are a number of different ways of applying these findings, from listening to soundscapes to using virtual environments.


Forest bathing and other interactions with nature have a clear basis in supporting well-being. This applies to both mental and physical well-being, with benefits to both being established in the literature.

The exact mechanisms in nature that provide health benefits are harder to establish. It is perhaps possible that the positive effects experienced as a result of forest bathing are a product of interactionism, with multiple variables acting together to cause a particular outcome.


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Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Anthoni Oisin

Written by

Anthoni Oisin

Anthoni Oisin is a writer and content creator. In 2021, he graduated with first-class honours in psychology, where he focused on neuroscience, biological, cognitive, and developmental psychology. During his degree, he developed an interest in psychoacoustics and psycholinguistics due to his work at the local radio station. His thesis investigated the linguistic and cognitive differences in processing human and robotic speech through digital experiments and quantitative analysis. He has continued his research with a Master’s degree in Sound Innovation, where he is researching biological and psychological immersion. Currently, his research interests include psychophysiology, embodiment, neurodiversity, acoustics, and the autonomic nervous system.


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